by Joseph Mattam SJ
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first South American, became Pope on 13 March 2013. From the very beginning he gave the impression of being a different type of pope. His most outstanding trait is his love for the poor. He feels at home in the company of the poor; he takes a personal interest in them; he is convinced that the poor must be the centre of our attention, of our love. At the end of his visit to Lesbos he took a number of Muslim Syrian refugees under his protection. It is also reported that often he invites poor people to join him when he has his meals at the hostel where he lives. He keeps reminding us that we need to build more bridges and not walls as suggested by President Trump.
Along with this love for the poor goes his very special care of refugees. He encourages all countries to welcome them and opposes those who close their borders to refugees. He cares especially for the children of migrants and refugees as they are the most vulnerable, with no possibility of an education, and at risk of being sexually exploited. He never misses an opportunity to come to the help of migrants, the poor, prisoners, the disabled and all those the world considers as unworthy of our attention and love. To see him interacting with the poorest of the poor is a wonderful example of the living gospel in our times.
Another important thrust we find in this Pope is his love for nature and its protection. Laudato si brings new elements to the social doctrine of the Church, emphasizing the link between nature and creation. The impact of this encyclical is immeasurable and immense. It brings to light uncomfortable and universal truths like our rampant anthropocentrism and the greed of the free market economic system. Concern for nature is a moral issue and humans cannot afford to ignore it. In this encyclical he calls for an “ecological conversion”; he reminds us that nature is a book through which God reveals self and speaks to us. That is why he appeals to us to protect our environment and support international efforts to save our planet. This encyclical helps us to turn away from resignation and despair and instead choose commitment to the preservation of nature and creation.
The Pope has a keen sense of the issues of ecumenism. He is very sensitive to the position of the Orthodox Christians with regard to the primacy of Rome. Thus when meeting the Orthodox Patriarch he refers to himself as the Bishop of Rome and not as the universal head of the Church. His desire for dialogue with other churches was evident when he met the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. This spirit of Ecumenism was also very apparent when he went to Sweden on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and met the head of the Reformed Churches. All we can hope is that through his efforts the various Churches may come together and bear united witness to the Gospel. Often he has pointed out that division among Christians is a great scandal and such divisions hinder the work of evangelization. With his Evangelii Gaudium he has shown his great enthusiasm for evangelization. There he invites us to keep on proclaiming Jesus as he has solutions to all the problems of the world. What is remarkable about that document is the fact that with all the emphasis on evangelization and proclamation of the Gospel, he does not speak at all about baptism; for him evangelization is merely making Jesus known to people, not convert them to the Church, something we Christian are often accused of.
Time and again the Pope has pointed out that the first duty of a religious leader is duty to God. The pope keeps reminding us of the primacy of God in one’s life. This is to be carried out in the name of every human and creation. He is aware of the growing Islamophobia in the world. Hence he has often emphasized the importance of tolerance among people, and met with Islamic leaders. His meeting with the Grand Imam Al-Azhar in 2016 was a very historic moment.
The Pope is remarkable for his simple life style and simplicity. He opted to stay on in the hostel instead of moving into the Vatican Palace where he would be cut off from the ordinary, simple people. He often uses public transport. He wants to have a humble church, a poor church at the service of the poor.
Synodality is another key issue of this Pope. In one of the first speeches of his pontificate he insisted on the need for a synodal Catholic Church. He described three levels of synodality. The first, that of the local Church; the second that of the ecclesiastical provinces and regions, particular councils and, in a special way, conferences of bishops; and the third, that of the universal Church. “A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf. Is 11:12) in a world which - while calling for participation, solidarity, and transparency in public administration - often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups,” he stressed. He insisted that the path of solidarity is what God expects of the Church in this third millennium. The Church needs to strengthen cooperation in all areas of her mission.
This concern for a synodal church is what made him call for a team of cardinals as his counselors with whom he has been meeting regularly. This is something unprecedented in th history of the Church. The two previous popes had developed a totally centralized, authoritarian pattern of governance in the Church. The synodal approach adopted by Pope Francis is a continuation of the process started in Vatican II, which unfortunately was terminated by the succeeding popes, especially John Paul II and Benedict. This approach of Francis is also a continuation of the process started in CELAM (Assembly of the Latin American Bishops) at Medellin, Columbia. During Vatican II and CELAM the Church listened to the Gospel in the light of the present day world and its challenges. The synodal approach suggested by Pope Francis calls for the whole hearted cooperation of the bishops all over the world. Unfortunately, there is some opposition to the pope, some of it led by a few cardinals.
In the context of a growing threat of nuclear war in the world, the need for working for peace and reconciliation among people is greater than ever before. Pope Francis has been giving a lead precisely in this direction. His synodal approach is an antidote to the world which is moving in the direction of conflicts and war. Vatican II had called for a more synodal approach in the Church but sadly what has happened is more centralization. Bishops all over the world do not seem to have followed the example of Pope Francis and called for a local synod. More local synods would have been the proper response to the initiative taken by Pope Francis.
Joseph Mattam, SJ, an Indian Jesuit of the Gujarat Province, and an emeritus professor of theology, was the founder and long time director of the Gujarat Regional Theologate and later of the Gujarat Vidya Deep, the Regional Seminary. He lectures in many theologates and seminaries in India and abroad, especially Africa. He is a member of various national and international associations and was the president of FOIM (Fellowship of Indian Missiologists, an ecumenical association). He has authored six books and has edited nine books of the FOIM series and two of the Indian Theological Association, and has many articles in theological and missiological Journals in India, Africa, France and the US.